For the last many weeks TOI (Times of India) has been running Lead India campaign urging people to come out and vote. Also, many citizen groups in various cities have been exhorting people to vote. There is a TV ad from TATA Tea, called Jaagore.com, which urges people to vote, accusing those who do not vote to be ‘sleeping’. During a discussion that ensued on TOI few months ago, many commenters suggested that voting should be made mandatory, and that people who do not vote should even be punished. Some suggested that certain level of education should be a prerequisite condition for voting since the riffraff seem to elect extremely bad leaders.
In many after-dinner discussions held within middle class Indian families, voters show a disdain for people who do not vote. Taking a higher moral ground, they say, ‘You don’t have a right to criticize the government if you have not voted!’ According to them, a person who has not voted has no right to complain if things go wrong.
At the outset, it almost passes as a very logical stand. But then, it is not!
A constitutional democracy is not just about elections though it seems to be the common perception. Though Elections, or adult franchise as we call it, is an essential tool in a democracy by which people exercise their right to form their government, it is not a sufficient condition for making a democracy. Even dictatorships and communist countries conduct elections but they do not make democracies.
A constitutional democracy needs to have many other tools to ensure it is a smooth working system. Rule of law, Freedom to its citizens or Bill of Rights, Independent or semi-independent Judiciary where every man is treated equal and is give due course of law, Legislature where any man can aspire to become an elected leader, fair representation of groups and identities, equal access to opportunity and education, and other institutions created for checks and balances make up a democracy.
One of the important components to make a democracy successful includes the essential pillar called free media. Democracy does not work without self-criticism, free inquiry, and free exchange of information. One of the founding principles of a making a democracy, where people get to rule themselves, iconized by the phrase ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ is to ensure no single person, a single group, a single class, or a single family becomes the wolf ruling over the sheep. In a democracy, sheep get to rule themselves ensuring nobody becomes the wolf; making sure their freedoms are not stripped off, a certain privileged class does not rule over underprivileged, or a certain majority does not suppress a minority.
In such a system, checks are balances form an important function. A person who criticizes the government and its actions exposing the flaws in the system is contributing as much to democracy as any other citizen who has exercise his right for adult franchise. To say that a critic does not contribute to a democracy just because he has not voted is a hollow argument.
If the person who has not voted doesn’t have a right to criticize or demand things from the government, how about a person who has voted for the opposition party? As far as the party in power is concerned, a guy who has not voted is better off than the guy who has voted for the opposition party, isn’t it?
If there is a degree of blame given to voters, what do we make of the guy who actually voted an inept and imbecile politician into power? Should he be blamed for the ineptitude of the government? Should the non-voters blame the voters for the current state of the country?
Voters do not take blame for voting a wrong leader to power and they do not take credit for putting a right leader either. Therefore, no single voter takes credit or blame for putting a leader in power. Instead, we take a collective responsibility where the blame and credit is shared by all including those who voted him, those who voted against him, and those who abstained from voting, and those who are ineligible for voting. Democracy is a system that ensures the above without going into the details of who voted for whom.
Can the elected leader dole out government backed incentives to voters in his constituency based on which party they voted for? Can he give preferential treatment through his government to the people who voted for him and discriminate against those who did not? A democracy should be built in such a way the elected leader works for his constituency irrespective of who voted for whom.
Though it is a prerogative for an adult to vote, it is not a duty that can be legalized or penalized, and not a duty based on which a preferential system can be enforced. A person who did not vote is not in any way less contributing towards a democracy. There are many ways he could be contributing – for example, doing his duty as a good policeman is good enough.
People get into moral discussions on voting – and I usually like to refrain from getting into those discussions. Who is a better citizen, the question is posed, a person who has voted or the one who has not? Not many people understand that voting is not mandatory, it’s a right you wish to use or not use. It cannot be enforced. It is not a matter of legality. It is not equivalent to paying taxes. We cannot treat voters as better citizens exactly because we cannot blame the voters of a certain party for things gone wrong.
This discussion does not mean I discourage people from voting. This discussion does not mean I do not support elections. Voting in large numbers is a good sign of a vibrant democracy. However, there is no clear indication that there is growing apathy amongst Indian voters. India has seen more or less the same voter turnout for Lok Sabha elections since 1962, ranging between 55%-65%.
The pressing problem for most voters in India is that there are no deserving candidates. This happens more often in small towns and villages of India than in metros. When all the candidates are criminals, when each of them is a blatant liar, corrupt and dishonest candidate, who do you vote? If the only reason is fielded by the party is that he belongs to a certain caste, certain religion, or that he has sucked up the best, or that he is easily molded by others, who do you vote? Is it just apathy or is it that indeed there is no genuine choice that can be made?